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Dietribes: Vim and Vinegar

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• Vinegar is, essentially, fermented fruit, though it can be made from anything containing sugar. "Typical retail varieties of vinegar include white distilled, cider, wine (white and red), rice, balsamic, malt and sugar cane. Other, more specialized types include banana, pineapple, raspberry, flavored and seasoned (e.g., garlic, tarragon)."

• "I can pickle that!" you say. Well, not so fast: "If you attempt to make vinegar at home, we are sure you’ll develop an appreciation for the difficulty of this ancient art and science. Be careful. While homemade vinegar can be good for dressing salads and general purpose usage, its acidity may not be adequate for safe use in pickling and canning. Unless you are certain the acidity is at least four percent, don’t pickle or can with it."

• Recently my mother mentioned "Mother" in vinegar, which is actually a cellulose produced by the vinegar bacteria itself. Pasteurization usually gets rid of this stringy substance, though its presence doesn't mean that the vinegar is spoiled.

• Vinegar has a variety of non-food uses, such as a cleaner (one of my favorites, actually) and as a weed killer.

• A 1950s haircare guide suggests rinsing hair in a vinegar solution to truly get rid of old product (and it works!)

• Vinegar can dissolve pearls. Pliny the Elder wrote that Cleopatra made a bet with her lover -- the Roman leader Marc Antony -- that she could spend 10 million sesterces on one meal. She dropped a pearl earring in a vessel of vinegar, and when it dissolved allegedly drank it. (Cleopatra, the original 1%).

• We are all familiar with what happens when you combine vinegar and baking soda - a volcano! (and in this case, the world's largest!)

• Though I am not a fan of vinegar and avoid it (unless cleaning!) there are some strange ways to consume the stuff out there, such as Lemon Vinegar Kit Kats as well as Vinegar cocktails!

• The idea for this Dietribe came from reading a great article I linked to this weekend about vinegar's relation to the Victorian fainting couch. Furthermore, it seems that ladies of the time would dabble it into jeweled containers to make their progression through the smelly streets of town more pleasant.

• Not all vinegar was seen as pleasant, though. According to the New York Times, "No immigrant food was more reviled than the garlicky, vinegary pickle. Pungent beyond all civilized standards, toxic to both the stomach and the psyche, the pickle was seen as morally suspect. As Dr. Susanna Way Dodds wrote in the late 19th century, “the spices in it are bad, the vinegar is a seething mass of rottenness ... and the poor little innocent cucumber ... if it had very little ‘character’ in the beginning, must now fall into the ranks of the ‘totally depraved.’ ”

• For those who do enjoy it, it seems that vinegar sales are somewhat seasonal, with a peak in the summer months and a secondary peak in April most likely due to the Easter holiday and the use of vinegar in dying Easter eggs. Vinegar can also make for rubber eggs, plastic milk and a rubber chicken bone (it's science gone mad!)

• And if you really really really love vinegar, you can always visit the International Vinegar Museum.

• What do you put vinegar on, Flossers? And what is your favorite kind? I can't stand the smell or taste of it, but I can report that it does help calm an upset stomach!

Hungry for more? Venture into the Dietribes archive.

‘Dietribes’ appears every other Wednesday. Food photos taken by Johanna Beyenbach. You might remember that name from our post about her colorful diet.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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© Nintendo
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fun
Nintendo Will Release an $80 Mini SNES in September
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© Nintendo

Retro gamers rejoice: Nintendo just announced that it will be launching a revamped version of its beloved Super Nintendo Classic console, which will allow kids and grown-ups alike to play classic 16-bit games in high-definition.

The new SNES Classic Edition, a miniature version of the original console, comes with an HDMI cable to make it compatible with modern televisions. It also comes pre-loaded with a roster of 21 games, including Super Mario Kart, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past, Donkey Kong Country, and Star Fox 2, an unreleased sequel to the 1993 original.

“While many people from around the world consider the Super NES to be one of the greatest video game systems ever made, many of our younger fans never had a chance to play it,” Doug Bowser, Nintendo's senior vice president of sales and marketing, said in a statement. “With the Super NES Classic Edition, new fans will be introduced to some of the best Nintendo games of all time, while longtime fans can relive some of their favorite retro classics with family and friends.”

The SNES Classic Edition will go on sale on September 29 and retail for $79.99. Nintendo reportedly only plans to manufacture the console “until the end of calendar year 2017,” which means that the competition to get your hands on one will likely be stiff, as anyone who tried to purchase an NES Classic last year will well remember.

In November 2016, Nintendo released a miniature version of its original NES system, which sold out pretty much instantly. After selling 2.3 million units, Nintendo discontinued the NES Classic in April. In a statement to Polygon, the company has pledged to “produce significantly more units of Super NES Classic Edition than we did of NES Classic Edition.”

Nintendo has not yet released information about where gamers will be able to buy the new console, but you may want to start planning to get in line soon.

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